BY EMILIE OSTERKAMP
“Five, six, seven eight.” The room stands still. Andrea Asai assumes her position. Left foot forward, right foot back, body arched, arms extend to the east and west. Slowly her arms rise above her head with bachi firm in her hands. Her left arm extends just behind her head and then rapidly circles forward as the bachi strikes the taiko. As the left bachi leaves the skin of the taiko, the right bachi strikes it. The strikes are repeated, over and over in the same circular motion as legs pedaling a bike. Her heart starts racing as she picks up speed; the performance has begun.
Asai is a Japanese American percussionist who has mastered the art of taiko. When she was 7 years old, Asai joined a taiko group in her hometown of Los Angeles. The group was offered as an afterschool program at her Japanese language immersion elementary school.
“Starting in second grade students were allowed to partake in afterschool programs, I had heard from my older friends that it was fun, so I was like okay, I’ll do that” Asai says. According to Asai, traditionally taiko was used both as an instrument to announce war commands and an echolocation device that defined city boundaries in Japan – the closer you were to the beat of the taiko, the closer you were to the city limit. Today, it is a performance art that celebrates the Japanese culture by people of all races.
Asai is a fourth generation Japanese American. Though her family embraces its culture, Asai was the first to practice Japan’s musical traditions. Taiko first served as a way for her to not only gain friends doing something “cool,” but also as a way to bring her out of her out of her shell. As her narrow brown eyes scan the taiko practice room, she pulls her straight black hair that stops just below her shoulders away from her face, her voice lowers and she says, “I’ve always been shy, with everything. Being a part of a group was a way for me to make friends. Being on stage was a way for me to break out of my shell.”
Today, she does it because she loves it. “It’s also a great workout” she says, laughing. Standing 4’11” tall, Asai is over towered by her 6’5” taiko. Her arms fold over one another as a cool air breezes through the Wesley Center. She glances across the small room with old recliners pushed aside to fit everyone, at a friend who is sliding as he beats the taiko. She quietly laughs as she says, “Shoes are optional, but it’s easier to play without shoes or socks on because your stance is more stable.”
When Asai began to look at colleges, she paid a great deal of attention to the organizations they offered. Though the University of Oregon was her college of choice, she was disappointed to find out it did not offer a taiko club. “I knew there was an adult taiko group here in Eugene, but it’s not the same playing with people my parents’ age. Of course its more fun to play with people your age,” Asai says. During her sophomore year, she met two other students who also wanted to partake in collegiate taiko, together they formed “Ahiru Daiko,” Duck Taiko. Asai’s official title is the artistic co-director. She is responsible for the musical direction of the group, which includes running practices, organizing performances and working on/teaching new songs. “Since the group is new, well I do everything, that’s just what I’m supposed to do, but you know that shit gets thrown out the window when you’re the HBIC [head bitch in charge],” Asai grins. She begins to talk some more, but then pauses to clarify “Am I allowed to say that?” she asks.
Asai’s importance to the group is stressed by Darin Hideo Pasion, a member of Ahiru Daiko. “Andrea has done so much for Ahiru Daiko, as she was one of the original members starting off this group. From then until now, she has been the steer-head for the group and continues to put time into teaching the members of Ahiru Daiko new drumming patterns and techniques at practices. Without her, we wouldn’t be a huge success in the UO and Eugene community” Hideo Pasion says.
“I don’t know what I’ll do with taiko after college,” Asai says as she ponders “If I get accepted in to JET [Japanese Exchange & Teaching program in Japan] I’m sure I’ll find a group there to be in,” she adds, “but if I end up back home I’ll probably have to take a break from it for a while.” While her future involvement is unclear, Asai smiles as she explains that the experiences and memories, both good and bad, gained from her almost lifetime involvement in taiko are precious and something she is glad to have been a part of.
As she stands up to return to practice, the group claps mocking her special attention. Asai throws her hands up yelling “You see what happens when I leave them for 30 minutes? You guys fall apart – god bless Andrea.”